The History of Halloween – From Samhain to Trick-or-Treat

Most of you will have probably celebrated Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, last night. Activities that take place during the holiday include: carving jack-o-lanterns, dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating, as well as telling each other scary stories. These fun activities are part of Halloween’s special history, which stems from several different cultures and whose origins can be traced back to Ancient Celtic traditions.

Each year, the Celtic New Year was celebrated on November 1st and signified the end of summer, and the bountiful harvest, and the approach of winter, which was viewed as a time of death. To honour death and the tradition of the body leaving the soul, they also celebrated Samhain on New Year’s Eve. The Celts believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was the weakest, on this night, and the spirits returned to walk among us. They would create havoc by damaging crops, and chasing the living. To avoid detection by the spirits, people would wear costumes that were made of animal hides. The Celts also believed that the transparency of the spiritual barrier made it easier for the Druids, the society’s priests, to predict the future. Amid other celebrations and traditions, there would be large gatherings in which people engaged in fortune telling.

A powerful nation, the Romans conquered the Celts, and two of their festivals were merged with Samhain. These were: Feralia, a day which was dedicated to honouring their dead; and a day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was an apple, and is believed to be the reason why holiday makers now ‘bob for apples’ during the celebrations.

The Halloween celebrations first began in America in the southern colonies, as strict Puritan beliefs in the northern regions prevented them from engaging in what was perceived as a pagan holiday. European cultures and practices merged with the Native American ones and a new version of Halloween emerged. Public ‘play parties’ began to celebrate the harvest, and the older members of the community told stories about the dead, while party-goers sang, danced and read each other’s fortunes. Young women used apple parings, mirrors or yarn to reveal the name of their future husband.

The mid-nineteenth century saw an influx of immigrants, most of whom were fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, and the celebration of Halloween spread throughout the country. On October 31st people began dressing up in costumes and going from house to house, asking for money or food. This evolved into today’s trick-or-treat tradition. By the 1920’s Halloween had become a community event, with large parties held in the town’s hall or community centre. Many places also had large parades which most of the town’s population would attend. Today, Halloween is the second largest holiday celebration in America, right after Christmas.

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